'More Human Than Human': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of Submarine 2018
The doc has an understandably hard time deciding how to feel about humanity's future with computers.

Sometime Richard Linklater collaborator Tommy Pallotta joins Femke Wolting for a look at the state of artificial intelligence.

How long do we have until our robot overlords arrive, and how will they treat us once they're here? Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting muse on different scenarios in More Human than Human, a look at assorted developments in robotics and artificial intelligence. A mixed bag that feels like sitting down to skim a year's worth of magazine think-pieces on this sprawling subject, the doc couches journalism in pop-culture awareness and will play best to casual viewers on cable.

Co-directing but serving as our sole host onscreen and in voiceover, Pallotta (a castmember in Richard Linklater's Slacker who went on to work on his animated Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) gets into the subject by recalling his childhood attitudes toward robots and computers. From R2-D2 to replicants, he describes a Hollywood vision that grew dark pretty quickly where smarter-than-human machines were concerned.

The movie then starts visiting with both the creators and the users of today's bots. Case histories on the user side are quick but hint at big questions society may soon address: A woman in Russia has built a chatbot that uses her dead boyfriend's texts to impersonate him in conversation; the mother of an autistic child thinks of Apple's Siri as "a godsend," a patient babysitter who will answer the incessant questions that drive the mother crazy.

On the other side of the coin we meet those who create advanced tech and those who study their creations. Amsterdam roboticist Johan Hoorn argues that developing perfect replicas of human consciousness is a waste of time except as research tools, since "humans have so many undesired characteristics." Instead, his child-sized robot Alice is a tool to "mechanize empathy" for those without enough human friends. With the machines' limited set of questions and responses, he says, "they suggest they understand you...you don't need real understanding to feel understood." That makes sense for a certain type of robo-therapy assistant — and is an accurate description of a frightening number of human-to-human relationships as well.

Hopping from subject to subject, sometimes frustratingly quickly, Pallotta and Wolting devote something like 20 seconds to Cambridge Analytica, a data-analysis company that has worked to steer voters toward both Donald Trump and Brexit. The possibilities of such campaigns of data-driven behavior change are chilling, and a timely subject for debate. One interviewee suggests that, as algorithms start to control the ideas that reach social media users, we may have a limited time in which to decide how to deal with them: "What if the cool new mind-control machine doesn't want us thinking bad things about the cool new mind-control machine?"

The doc's overarching storyline is the filmmakers' attempt, with a team of roboticists, to build an automated crewmember. Early on, they're talking about the challenge of building a bot to "replace the DP"; and, given the questionable lens choices and other decisions made by flesh-and-blood cinematographer Guido van Gennep, maybe in this case that's not a terrible idea. But after a great deal of buildup during the film (including a visit from Linklater, who is amusingly skeptical of the effort), the machine they wind up with is a total flop. Pallotta stands before the robo-interviewer, which manages to keep him in frame but asks nonsensical questions like "What brings against you?" While Pallotta struggles to respond as if that were an actual piece of language, the film inadvertently illustrates the role our own willingness to be fooled plays in current human/machine interactions.

Production company: Submarine
Directors: Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting
Producers: Femke Wolting, Bruno Felix, Tommy Pallotta
Director of photography: Guido van Gennep
Editor: Chris van Oers
Composer: Harry Waters
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Visions)
Sales: Cinetic Media

78 minutes

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